Chancellor kicks off Oxford Conference for the book

By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal

OXFORD – Writing – the process, the purpose and the people – was the guest of honor as the 19th annual Oxford Conference for the Book opened Thursday.
“This is a luminous event for us,” University of Mississippi Chancellor Dan Jones said.
Beth Ann Fennelly, director of the MFA/Creative Writing program, added, “The University of Mississippi has a long-standing tradition of support for the literary arts.”
Thursday’s offerings included a salute to National Poetry Month.
“Poetry is an act of love. It speaks to the body … the imagination … our senses of mystery, pleasure and grief,” said Ann Fisher-Wirth, professor of English at Ole Miss.
Authors Richard Ford and Josh Weil, both of whom also teach writing at Ole Miss, talked about the process of writing.
Weil said the essence of a story is figuring out “what the character is running from, what that character needs. If the writer doesn’t lose sight of that, he can write about anything.”
Ford offered dryly, “There are three rules for writing novels; unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.”
Another session on Thursday featured three chroniclers of Black Freedom Movements. Randal Jelks of the University of Kansas emphasized that the civil rights movement was not a single entity. In the South blacks struggled more for economic and even physical survival while in the less overtly discriminatory North, they were “struggling for respectability.”
Allen Tullos, a white historian at Emory University, said what keeps him focused on his native Alabama’s history is hope of a more progressive future.
“If you only had 30 percent of the white voters to go along with African-American voters, you could transform the state’s politics,” he said.
Michael Thomas of Hunter College said his youth started with a determination to be a black liberator, but maturity and fatherhood gave him more conventional roles.
“I’m a dad first, a husband second, a soccer coach third, a very good carpenter fourth, a teacher next and then a writer,” he said.
The Conference for the Book draws both writers and readers alike. Shirley Williams, a retired teacher from Athens, Ala., came in search of new directions for her reading.
“I have no aspirations of being a writer,” she said. “I have discovered some authors I haven’t read before, and I enjoy reading about the South.”
The conference, most of whose events are free, continues today and Saturday.
errol.castens@journalinc.com